Tragic Death in Manatee Springs: The Dive That Ended in Disaster

Incident LocationDiver Full Name
USA, Florida, Manatee SpringsZhou Minn

One of the most important rules of cave diving is to make yourself aware of the present conditions of the cave diving site before embarking on your journey. Ignoring this could result in life-threatening situations, as we’ll see in today’s story. The incident in this story is one of the most disturbing cave stories we’ve covered.

Manatee Springs’ history can be traced back nine thousand years. The original residents of Manatee Springs were the Timiquan Indians. The entire picnic area was once a Timicon Indian village. The Timiquan chose this site because it was alongside the Suwanee River, providing them with a means of transportation and fresh water. The spring was named by William Bartram when he saw a manatee carcass on the shoreline of the spring. Manatees are large wholly aquatic animals. They’re marine mammals, mainly herbivores, and they’re also called sea cows. There was an attack near Manatee Springs between 1835 and 1842 called the Seminole Wars, led by Major General Andrew Jackson. Many Seminole Indians were killed, while the rest were forced to leave Florida.

The area then became settled by farmers who harvested timber from the spring and cultivated their crops there. After the incident in Manatee Springs, the spring was sold to the state, and in 1954, it became the first Florida State Park. Manatee Springs is one of Florida’s first magnitude springs and the longest spring run flowing directly into the Suwanee River. Manatee Springs State Park is located in Florida, about six miles away from Chiefland on State Road 320 off US-19. Manatee Springs State Park is a great place to have fun and enjoy yourself. It has a variety of activities to enjoy, ranging from bicycling to boating, camping, fishing, hiking, scuba diving, and wildlife viewing.

The West Indian manatee, after which the spring was named, finds the spring a good habitat because of the reduction of aquatic plants in the Suwanee River as a result of tannic acid, which darkens the river. Since manatees are herbivores, they move to Manatee Springs where they can get food and rest after they’ve traveled 23 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to manatees, there are also large numbers of American black vultures who come to Manatee Springs during winter. These vultures are not aggressive, and they’re not afraid of humans at the park.

Exploring Manatee Springs

Large numbers of American black vultures come to Manatee Springs during winter. These vultures are not aggressive and are not afraid of humans at the park. The cave system of Manatee Springs is not among the most popular cave diving sites in Florida due to strong currents, which can make diving difficult and reduce visibility. However, Manatee Springs offers the best conditions when other cave diving sites are at their worst. For example, during flooding in the Suwannee River, the visibility in the Manatee cave system actually improves. There are many sinkhole ponds in Manatee Springs, and the main entrance to the cave system is not easily accessible due to high current. To enter the cave system, you need to go to the Catfish Hotel, which provides a large window into the side of the cave. From there, you turn right and follow the main guideline upstream. The deepest depths of the cave system are upstream of Catfish, around 90 feet. There are other openings along the way, such as Sue’s Sink and the Friedman Sink. Divers often traverse between caves, entering one cave and exiting through another cave.

Changing Conditions and Warnings

Years ago, cave divers used to make their way by following Catfish Hotel and passing out through Manatee Springs Fountain main entrance, a daring traverse in the high flow. However, recently the tunnels near the main entrance started collapsing, making the holes much smaller and passing through them more dangerous. Diving experts warned divers not to go through such passages any longer. Additionally, heavy downpours in November 2019 made the running water much stronger than usual, making the traverse even more dangerous and unsafe. It is now strongly recommended not to turn left from Catfish Hotel due to the extremely strong current, which makes it extremely difficult to return. A blockage at the main entrance of the cave system also makes it extremely dangerous to attempt reaching it. Certified cave divers have died while trying to do so.

The Ill-Fated Dive

Zhou Min, a 28-year-old woman from China, embarked on a cave diving adventure at Manatee Springs. She was part of a group of four cave divers, with Wang Yuan, a cave diving instructor with over 500 hours of experience, leading the first team. Chen Chen, with around 100 hours of cave diving experience, was also part of the first team. Zhou and Fu Shayu, both newly certified cave divers with about 11 hours of cave diving experience, made up the second team. Wang, the most experienced diver, had visited Manatee Springs years ago and had traversed from Catfish Hotel to the Manatee Springs exit three times. However, he was not pre-informed about the current situation of Manatee Springs and the surrounding water bodies. The cave had become extremely dangerous, but the team did not make inquiries about the present situation before their dive. It is crucial to ask questions and gather updated information before entering any cave, especially if it has been a long time since your last visit.

The Dive Plan

The two teams planned to exit the cave system downstream into Manatee Springs. The first team, Wang and Chen, entered Catfish Hotel using rebreathers and dive propulsion vehicles. They connected the main rope and pushed against the water current upstream, beyond Friedman’s Sink, where they would turn around to join the second team. The purpose of this dive was to check the conditions of the route ropes and the Friedman exit. They reported that the visibility was not good, ranging from 9 to 15 feet. However, they concluded that there was no risk of exceeding their capabilities and decided to push forward. They reached about 1600 feet and took 35 minutes for the push. After ensuring the safety of the Friedman exit and the surrounding areas, they advanced to 1700 feet and set down the first EAN-32 stage. The second team, Joe and Fu, entered the cave system through Catfish Hotel after one hour, using LP95 back-mounted double cylinders. They met up with the first team about 500 feet from the exit.

Challenging Conditions

When the two teams met, they checked their air volume and decided to proceed together according to the plan. However, when they arrived at the end of the line, the exit was entirely black due to poor visibility. They used a jump reel to connect to the main line but encountered a significant increase in current as they went up the slope. Wang was pushed against a wall, and the current at the top was too strong for them to handle. Despite his attempts to hold on, Wang’s mask and rebreather were torn apart, and he started choking. He saw light signals from Joe and Fu indicating that they were calling for help, but Chen from the first team was stuck in a bigger hole. Wang tried to pull Chen up against the current but failed, and when he let Chen go, he was pushed to shallow water. Wang saw Fu being thrown out of the cave by the strong current but was unable to check her condition. He re-entered the cave to help Joe but couldn’t reach her due to the strong current. He decided to return to the surface, believing that someone would have helped his teammates outside the cave.

Desperate Rescue Efforts

Wang attempted to bring Joe back to the surface, but the force of the incoming water at the cave entrance prevented him from doing so. They had to wait for rescue personnel, and in the meantime, Fu hurried to the park duty station to get help. About 20 minutes later, an ambulance arrived to transport Chen to the hospital for treatment. He recovered after medical treatment. The rescue workers arrived after an hour and made several efforts to retrieve Joe’s body, but they were unable to get it out of the cave due to it being hooked by the rocks. They had to forcefully drag the body, which created another opening within the cave. After the incident, the main line was removed from Manatee Springs to Catfish Hotel, and a warning sign was placed to discourage divers from entering through Catfish Hotel to exit Manatee Springs.

The negligence of not gathering updated information, coupled with changing conditions and strong currents, led to the tragic death of Joe and the harrowing experience for the other divers. It serves as a reminder to always inquire about the current situation of any cave before diving and to be prepared for unexpected challenges. Cave diving requires thorough planning, updated knowledge, and a cautious approach to ensure the safety of divers.

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Why is it important to gather updated information before cave diving?

It is crucial to gather updated information before cave diving because conditions in caves can change over time, and being aware of these changes is essential for ensuring your safety. Ignoring updated information can lead to life-threatening situations.

What are some activities you can enjoy at Manatee Springs State Park?

At Manatee Springs State Park, you can enjoy a variety of activities such as bicycling, boating, camping, fishing, hiking, scuba diving, and wildlife viewing.

Why is the cave system at Manatee Springs not among the most popular cave diving sites in Florida?

The cave system at Manatee Springs is not among the most popular cave diving sites in Florida due to strong currents, which can make diving difficult and reduce visibility. However, it can offer better conditions during flooding in the Suwannee River when visibility actually improves.

Why did the divers encounter challenges during their dive at Manatee Springs?

The divers encountered challenges during their dive at Manatee Springs due to changing conditions and strong currents. The tunnels near the main entrance had collapsed, making the passages smaller and more dangerous. Additionally, heavy downpours had made the water flow stronger than usual, further increasing the risks.

What lessons can be learned from the tragic incident at Manatee Springs?

The tragic incident at Manatee Springs serves as a reminder to always gather updated information before cave diving, be prepared for changing conditions, and approach cave diving with caution. Thorough planning, updated knowledge, and a cautious approach are essential for ensuring the safety of divers in cave diving activities.

Patrick Broin
Patrik, a seasoned cave diver, shares his first-hand experiences and expert insights on the treacherous world of cave diving accidents.
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